ATLANTA (AP) — Major League Soccer has another chance to chip into Mexico’s continental dominance.
Reigning MLS Cup champion Atlanta United will host the second annual Campeones Cup on Wednesday night, facing Liga MX powerhouse Club América in a game that certainly means more to the home team and its league.
Despite some modest inroads by MLS in recent seasons, Liga MX remains the dominant force in North America.
Mexican teams have won all 11 editions of the CONCACAF Champions League, and had both finalists eight of those years. Liga MX is also positioned to take the inaugural Leagues Cup title, having claimed three of the four semifinal spots, while Tigres UANL captured the first Campeones Cup — pitting the champions from each league in a single game — with a 3-1 victory over Toronto FC.
Atlanta United, which won the MLS Cup title in just its second season and has set numerous attendance records while establishing itself as one of the top-drawing teams in the world at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, got a taste of North American reality in this year’s Champions League.
Going in with high hopes of becoming the first MLS team to win the continental club title, Atlanta went down meekly to eventual champion Monterrey in the two-legged quarterfinals. United lost 3-0 on the road before salvaging a bit of pride with a 1-0 home victory.
The Campeones Cup provides another shot at Liga MX, and it comes at a time when Atlanta is fully into its league season and appears to be in top form.
“We want to prove, of course, as Atlanta United but also as an MLS club that we are coming closer to the Mexican league,” United coach Frank de Boer said Tuesday. “We have to be 100 percent to beat them. But I have the confidence that we’re getting closer and closer.”
It’s not exactly a fair fight.
Not only does Liga MX benefit from a much longer history (it was founded in 1943 — 53 years before MLS) and deeply rooted soccer culture in Mexico, its teams are not encumbered by the salary cap and roster limitations that are designed to hold down costs in MLS.
“Right now, the Mexican teams set the bar in North America. We’re trying to chip away at that,” United defender Michael Parkhurst said. “Our teams have to deal with restrictions that Mexican teams don’t. Hopefully, through the new (collective bargaining agreement, which will replace the current deal after this season), we’ll be able to catch up a little bit quicker and give ourselves a better chance.”
Atlanta has won four of its last five matches, the only setback a thrilling 4-3 loss at MLS-leading Los Angeles FC. United has been especially tough on its own pitch, with 10 victories and one draw in its last 11 games at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. United has posted eight shutouts while surrendering just five goals during its dominating run at home.
Josef Martinez heads into this game with 22 goals in MLS play, ranking second in the league, and having set a record by scoring in 10 straight matches.
Even though United is pushing to claim the top spot in the Eastern Conference, which is worth a valuable bye in the first round of the playoffs, de Boer vowed to send out a top lineup against Club América.
“We are privileged to play this club,” he said. “It’s a title, and we want it.”
Club América earned its spot by winning the Apertura championship during the first half of 2018-19 Liga MX season, and then beating Clausura winner Tigres UANL on penalties in the Campeón de Campeones last month.
While United is winding down its league season, Club América is just getting started. The team is 3-0-1 through its first four games of the 2019-20 Liga MX season, and also defeated MLS squad Houston Dynamo to advance to the semifinals of the Leagues Cup.
Club América features former LA Galaxy star Giovani dos Santos, though he won’t be in the starting lineup for the Campeones Cup.
“It’s going to be a difficult game. They’re a very strong team,” América coach Miguel Herrera said through a translator after his team worked out Tuesday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. “They’ve gotten better as the season has gone on. It won’t be as easy game, but were hoping to get another trophy and walk away with our heads held high.”